Ramen Noodles Are a Popular Prison Currency, Study Reveals

iStock / iStock

Instant ramen has always been prized among college students—but a new study reveals that it’s also popular among U.S. inmates. In fact, The Guardian US reports, the freeze-dried noodles are actually surpassing tobacco as the go-to underground prison currency.

Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology, researched the report, which was published by the American Sociological Association on August 22. His findings, he says, weren’t traced back to tobacco bans within prison systems. Instead, corrections budgets have shrunk, and the cost of care is shifting onto prisoners and their support networks, the sociologist explained in a news release.

Gibson-Light spent a year interviewing around 60 male inmates and staff members at an anonymous state-run prison. While observing how prisoners dealt with service cutbacks, he noticed that they traded instant ramen packets for food, clothing, toiletries, and services. They even gambled with the noodles during card games.

Gibson-Light noted that the prisoners once received three hot meals a day. That changed in the early 2000s, when the prison switched private food preparation firms and lunch was pared down to a cold sandwich and a bag of chips. Weekend lunches were soon gone, and portion sizes decreased overall.

Since the inmates spend all day exercising and working, they suffered from the calorie loss. And the little food that they did receive was so bad that correctional officers warned Gibson-Light not to eat it, telling him he’d get food poisoning.

"Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles— a cheap, durable food product—as a form of money in the underground economy," Gibson-Light concluded in a news release. "Because it is cheap, tasty, and rich in calories, ramen has become so valuable that it is used to exchange for other goods."

Inmates used two packs of 59-cent ramen to buy a $11 sweatshirt, or five cigarettes worth $2. Men were sometimes even killed after they purchased ramen from illegal inmate stores on credit and were unable to repay their debts, inmates told Gibson-Light.

Prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting has occurred across the U.S. Thanks to this, the ramen-as-currency trend is observable in other penal institutions, too, Gibson-Light told The Guardian US—even in institutions where tobacco has been banned. There, soup has surpassed other popular money substitutes like stamps and envelopes.

According to Gibson-Light, data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that state spending on corrections plummeted 5.6 percent from 2009 to 2010. Meanwhile, the number of inmates continues to swell.

[h/t The Guardian US]

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.